The Silver Dons, 1833-1865


Before the war with Mexico, the people of the United States knew very little about California. Crude maps indicated it embraced the present states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and parts of New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado.

Presidents Jackson and Tyler had wanted to buy California from Mexico. Others thought it should become independent. Sam Houston in Texas had a dream of a new and mighty nation that would encompass all of the vast area from Texas to Oregon, as well as Chihuahua and Sonora in Mexico.

Orators demanded to know what anybody would want with such a vast and worthless area of savages and wild beasts, of deserts of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs, of endless and impenetrable mountain ranges covered to their bases with eternal snow, and of thousands of miles of rockbound and cheerless coast.

Sen. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, for one, in opposing the acquisition of any new territory, saw only San Francisco Bay as having any possible value to the United States. As for the rest of California, it was “not worth a dollar.”

President Polk, however, was determined to acquire California. If war developed with Mexico over the annexation of Texas, might not California seek the protection of England, or even France or Russia? The manifest destiny of California was to run with the destiny of the United States. “The Silver Dons” tells how this destiny unfolded within California, as seen through the experiences of its birthplace, the pueblo of San Diego.

“The Silver Dons” is the third volume in a series on the history of California and the Southwest as centered on San Diego. The two previous books were “The Explorers,” on the discovery and settlement of California, and “Time of the Bells,” on the mission period. “The Silver Dons” deals with a period of thirty-five years that began with the secularization of the missions and ended with the close of the Civil War.

Diaries, journals, state papers, official and personal correspondence, and documents, many from the archives of Mexico and Old California, have been examined for the story of how California became a part of the United States, and the effect it had on the lives and fortunes of the old Spanish and Mexican families, who claimed so much of its vast lands, and on the early adventurers, settlers and traders, who had arrived from across the Plains and the Rockies or by ship from distant Atlantic seaports.

The records are to be found in the depositories of the nation, our great libraries and institutions, the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at Los Angeles, the California State Library at Sacramento, the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery at San Marino, and in the Archives of the United States.

The files and publications of the California Historical Society, the Historical Society of Southern California, and the San Diego History Center and those of other institutions from New York to New Orleans to San Diego also hold the flesh of the personal experiences of those who came by land and which must go on the bare ribs of historical record.

The stories of the men who came by sea, to stay or to trade or to chase the whale, and of the ships they sailed, must be followed from Johnnycake Hill in New Bedford to the Silver Gate at San Diego. They lie in the museums or libraries of Boston, of Mystic Seaport, of Salem, of Nantucket, and of Sag Harbor.

There is, in addition, a vast field of literature on California, and thousands of individual researchers have added their bits to a story that never grows old, that of old struggles and old defeats, and of new lands and new hopes, of the passing of one generation and the temporary triumph of another. For change is the essence of history, and the Silver Dons of California tasted of the rewards as well as the bitterness of momentous movements.

Richard F. Pourade